How can I set boundaries with my sister?

by Anonymous

Dear Bev,

Though I grew up in an alcohol-saturated, alcoholic-dominated family, I've managed to escape the trap of alcoholism - as have my only two siblings, both sisters.

As I became a more healthy adult, I distanced myself more and more from my birth family. Living apart from my birth family, and not trying to be an integral part of the family, has brought me peace.

During the past year, as my mother has been dealing with cancer and facing the end of her life, my older sister and I have started corresponding more frequently by email. Though she and I have never had open, frank discussions about the many issues we faced while growing up with alcoholic parents and grandparents (and other alcoholic relatives), I've been hoping that our recent exchanges might pave the way toward rebuilding our relationship.

A couple of weeks ago, my younger sister, with whom I had not corresponded for some years, emailed me to say that I MUST copy her each and every time that I write to my older sister. And now my older sister has written to me to say that, yes, I must always copy our younger sister because not doing so "hurts" her.

Note that never, in my recent emails to my older sister, have I made any remarks about any aspect of my younger sister's personality or how she lives her life. I have not been writing to my older sister to complain about my younger sister. I have not been talking, behind my younger sister's back, about her.

Our younger sister is histrionic, a drama-queen who seems focused on getting attention (and other resources) for herself and who doesn't seem truly interested in me as a person. I find her correspondence (often filled with anger and demands, such as offering me money only if I visit "the family," and in particular our mother) exhausting. Interestingly, my younger sister has worked as a professional counselor.

Both my sisters adore our mother (she may leave them significant amounts of money when she passes), who remains emotionally and intellectually abusive even though she's no longer drinking. My grown son has recently experienced her abusiveness first-hand, and I'm relying on his testimony as confirmation that our remaining and still-dominant family leopard hasn't changed her spots. My alcoholic father died about 13 years ago, and other
older alcoholic relatives have also passed. However, my entire birth family appears to be continuing to live their lives by the emotional rules of alcoholics, even if only one family alcoholic is still surviving.

I am not emotionally strong enough to spend time with my mother and emerge intact; every time I spent time with her during my 20s and 30s, I ended up suicidal. She's always proven an expert at tearing me to shreds emotionally and psychologically, whether in person or via phone calls or via correspondence. In order to continue to function and enjoy life, I am not able to have any contact with my mother. This I know.

Please, can you suggest ways that I can set healthy boundaries with my sisters? I would like to continue to correspond with my older sister but not my younger sister.

(I do not bear my younger sister, or, in fact, any of my relatives any malice. I feel no resentment or anger towards my relatives; I just don't want to be an intimate part of their lives. The exception may be that I might like to enjoy a closer relationship with my older sister, who is much more even-keeled than my younger one.)

Or, are some families so ruled by codependency that there's simply no way to establish healthy boundaries, and thus the only way towards a healthier life is walking away from all family members - kit and kaboodle?

All advice will be appreciated.

Please do not publish my name, as I do not want to cause distress among my relatives.


As much as you try, you will be involved with the dysfunctional family dynamics and it will cause you the same distress that you’ve tried to avoid.

Although you want a relationship with your older sister, it cannot happen unless she changes and it doesn’t seem that she will. That being said, you have to accept this. It would have been nice if she would change, but right now it’s not going to happen.

Maybe somewhere down the road things will be different, but you must do what you have to do. Codependency Anonymous (Coda) groups or a session or so of counseling, can be helpful to give you solutions to get over your own upset at this point in time. You have to protect yourself.

All the very best


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